When cooking for your family, you know better than to use the M-word. That’s right, the M-word, which stands for MSG. It’s a controversial ingredient, and the epitome of all things “unhealthy.” You might have been told all your life that MSG is bad for you, so hearing the word now is enough to make you feel a sense of existential dread. But recently, there has been an influx of chefs and YouTubers who promote the use of MSG, with a particular example being Uncle Roger, who is one step away from marrying a bag of MSG. So what’s the truth anyway? Is MSG really bad for you or is it just widely misunderstood?
What is MSG?
MSG is short for Monosodium Glutamate, and it’s a flavor enhancer that Uncle Roger accurately describes as “salt on crack.” It’s meant to add a touch of umami into your food, which is usually only achieved by breaking down or fermenting certain foods to bring out their rich flavors. MSG was invented by a Japanese chemist named Kikune Ikedai in 1908. He wanted to create a shortcut to the umami flavor, so he isolated the glutamate compounds found in a bowl of Kombu Dashi (a type of stock made of kelp) and combined it with sodium. This resulted in a magical ingredient that was capable of boosting the flavors of any dish, so naturally, MSG became widely popular around Asia. It eventually made its way to America, where it earned its reputation of being a universally abhorred ingredient.
The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome
The debacle about MSG began in 1968, when Doctor Robert Ho Man Kwok complained about feeling sick after eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant. He wrote about his symptoms to a renowned medical journal, speculating that his headaches, heart palpitations, and general weakness was caused by the MSG used in most Chinese dishes. Even though Kwok’s letter was inconclusive, the news about the supposed harmful effects of MSG spread like wildfire because of sensationalism and biased medical studies. Soon enough, the stigma against MSG was dubbed the “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” which lists headaches, drowsiness, nausea, and heart palpitations among the many symptoms you would feel after consuming Chinese food. There is no scientific evidence that proves this is true, so the idea that MSG and Chinese food in general is bad for you is just a product of racism and xenophobia. The stigma was so strong that even Asians were convinced that MSG is a dangerous ingredient that should never be used.
What caused these symptoms in the first place?
It’s possible for people to feel these symptoms if they are sensitive to MSG, but they are only isolated cases that were amplified by hysteria about MSG. Just because some people feel sick after eating MSG doesn’t automatically mean that it’s bad for everyone. In fact, MSG isn’t even a foreign ingredient that comes in the form of packaged salt; it’s naturally produced by our bodies since Glutamate is an amino acid. It’s also naturally occurring in foods like mushrooms, cheese, tomatoes, and broth. On top of that, MSG isn’t only found in Chinese food because it’s also widely used in chips, condiments, instant noodles, and canned goods, so unless you feel certain symptoms after eating all the above mentioned foods, then you’re not likely sensitive to MSG. Like many things, MSG is only bad when consumed in excess, but the amount found in restaurant meals and everyday grocery items isn’t enough to harm you.
MSG is a great ingredient to use if you want to add a touch of umami in your dishes without having to spend hours or even days boiling broth or fermenting vegetables. It’s also the shortcut to achieving a restaurant-quality taste, so it’s definitely a pantry essential. Contrary to popular belief, MSG isn’t actually harmful to your health, but there might be some people who are more sensitive to it compared to others. It isn’t the same case for everyone, so if you don’t feel any ill effects after consuming MSG, then you shouldn’t be afraid of incorporating it into your cooking.